Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age Part II: In which Evangelicals Lost By Winning

In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.

Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.

 Well the gocathedralod news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.

Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.

What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.

In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.

The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.

Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.

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Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral
An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

Give me neither poverty or riches…

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

These words, so powerful and so true, should be inscribed on the heart if not the wall of every Christian, especially in the wealth and prosperity of American society. Indeed this proverb most profoundly encapsulates the very heart of what have been the most troublesome and persistent problems in our society and in the church. So much of the injustice, racism, environmental and economic exploitation that has plagued our society finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with, “the food that I need.” Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil, and the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth.

Despite this it seems the chief day to day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better. In fact purveyors of the much maligned prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Prosperity preachers, maligned though they may be, are not the first or the only to promote such views. Indeed it could be said that the scorn heaped upon them by mainstream evangelicals is a bit hypocritical when one drives into the parking lot of the typical suburban evangelical church and observes the well coiffed parishioners leave half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUV’s to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars worth of carpet, and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. The rich always decry the indulgences of the poor.

Prosperity preaching is in some ways merely a continuation of what has always been latent in American evangelicalism: an equation of God’s blessing with material goods. After all the massive prosperity of the United States was built on free land (taken from natives) and free labor (taken from Africans) the use of which was often endorsed by protestant Christians.

In any event, as a observer of immigrant culture in the context of the immigrant church, this correlation has caught on quite readily. It is an unfortunately easy leap to make; the pursuit and achievement of the American dream is often perceived (if not overtly stated) to be the best way to be a good Christian. And while it is easy to see and critique it in the Asian church, it is quite apparent in other places as well. After all the Christianity they practice is the Christianity to which they were converted.

Chingoos II

Ladies and gentlemen, a blast from the past

A while ago I wrote about the theology of friendship, or rather the lack thereof in the contemporary church. Recently a conversation with a dear Korean brother sparked some additional thoughts about friendship.

He mentioned that he thought, until he came to the U.S. very recently, that the idea of friendship was universal, and that in Korea to say that you are someone’s friend is to be entirely devoted to them. A friend would share the last piece of bread or even underwear (his words not mine) if need be. As we talked about this over dinner, my American born Korean friends and I shared with him a bit about how friendship works in the U.S. and I compared the type of friendship he described as being closer to what we say about family – about our brothers and sisters. He responded with disdainful amazement. Family, he said, is not your choice, and therefore does not carry the same weight as friendship.

This interaction could be easily chalked up to cultural differences, and indeed it is. Many Africans are surprised by the American idea of setting an appointment with a friend, and would think nothing of walking hand in hand with a friend of the same sex down the street. There is, however, more to it than just difference in cultures and there is perhaps something that can be learned theologically from the way different groups conceptualize friendship.

In Jesus’ last address to his disciples before his crucifixion he says pointedly, “I no longer call you friends, because I have told you everything.” Before this however he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” To my western American ears, this sounds absolutely antithetical to my understanding of what a friend is. To place friendship and obedience in the same sentence seems almost heretical. In fact friends are usually those people who pointedly DON’T tell us what to do and to whom we have no obligation to obey. The greatest love, Jesus says, is demonstrated when a man lays down his life for his friends. I would venture to say that this goes far beyond sharing underwear.

The question that naturally arises is whether Jesus’ words apply only to the unique nature of his relationship to the disciples or if they are more broadly applicable to friendship. Indeed I believe this is the presupposition most of us bring to the text. Yet there is nothing in the text that directly states that this is his assumption, and throughout scripture we find friendship elevated to a high position as in the case of David and Jonathan.

What are we to do with this? It seems to me that friendship is one place where American culture has departed far from the way it is understood in scripture. This is itself is not inherently problematic, because scripture was written in a certain cultural context with assumptions that are not immediately transferable to the American situation. However, by demoting friendship, or rather elevating other relationships, like marriage, we have placed more burden on the institution of marriage than it was intended to support. Single people are thereby consigned to the margins of church life and either pitied for their status (women) or held in suspicion (men). Is there a way in which non-marital emotionally intimate relationship, i.e. friendship, can be restored to a proper place in Christian understanding and practice? If such a understanding of friendship could be restored it might provide an option for those persons that are commanded by scripture to live in abstinence, and yet who yearn for emotional intimacy which is denied them by the current ways relationships are handled within the church.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: TNIV is gone gone gone!

Is there any doubt from the title of this post that I don’t exactly have great feelings of sadness for the demise of the TNIV?  It is perhaps not so appropriate to call the TNIV “the witch” since it is a “faithful and scholarly translation” but there you have it.  There are others for whom the TNIV has been an important resource for their own lives and ministry and they are sad to see it go.  Daniel writes:

As someone who communicates from the Bible on a weekly basis, I have found the TNIV to be a faithful, accurate and scholarly update to the best-selling NIV translation many of us grew up with.

Well  God bless him.  Eugene Cho also is lamenting its demise. I personally have used the TNIV on occasion (usually because there was no other option available) but have never purchased one and wouldn’t unless I had no other option.  I was opposed to its publication for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the gender inclusive language.  From Christianity Today:

“Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community,” said Zondervan president Moe Girkins. “So as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV.”

Girkins expects the TNIV and the existing edition of the NIV to phase out over two years or so as tniv-study-bible_0products are replaced. “It will be several years before you won’t be able to buy the TNIV off a bookshelf,” she said.

“We are correcting the mistakes in the past,” Girkins said. “Being as transparent as possible is part of that. This decision was made by the board in the last 10 days.” She said the transparency is part of an effort to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism.”

“The first mistake was the NIVi,” Danby said. “The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV.”

I have no quarrels with or suspicions about the motives of the scholars who did the work of translation for the TNIV.  I am certain (as certain as anyone can be about such things) that their motives were honorable and pure before God.  This is true even as it relates to the issue of gender inclusive language.

Doug Moo, chairman of the the Committee on Bible Translation (which is the body responsible for the translation) said the committee has not yet decided how much the 2011 edition will include the gender-inclusive language that riled critics of the TNIV.

“We felt certainly at the time it was the right thing to do, that the language was moving in that direction,” Moo said. “All that is back on the table as we reevaluate things this year. This has been a time over the last 15 to 20 years in which the issue of the way to handle gender in English has been very much in flux, in process, in development. And things are changing quickly and so we are going to look at all of that again as we produce the 2011 NIV.”

The “flux” to which Moo refers concerning the English language is actually overstated.  Neutered language is the norm in academic English usage and has moved  into common usage beyond the academy due mostly to rather aggressive efforts to mold popular use.  Unlike the evolution of the English language generally, the neutering of the language happened intentionally as a way to counter what were considered to be the oppressive patriarchal assumptions embedded in the language.

Why this gender thing matters, but not really

In so many ways, it honestly doesn’t. Though I am no Greek scholar, I am aware that in many places the language used is, in some ways, generic, that is, it does not specify gender, or more specifically, sex.  To neuter the original language in this way in order to conform to contemporary English usage norms makes a lot of good sense and doesn’t fundamentally challenge any doctrines of the church.

In other ways though, the neutering of language is quite significant as it says something powerful about how the church interacts with culture.   It is in fact only the newest manifestation of the church’s efforts to respond to and speak relevantly to a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christan and into which the church’s voice as a culture shaping agent is less and less important.  The multiplication of English language translations in the last century is testimony of the increasing marginalization of the church in society and every attempt at relevance reinforces greater and greater alienation.  But more on that in a later post.  In the mean time:

The massive irresponsibility of my blogging absence explained

I don’t have very many readers to this blog, and likely have far fewer now that I’ve neglected to update in nearly 3 months (or is it 4?), but those few readers ought to know that I have not been entirely unaware or absent from blogdom.

Indeed, as St. Jude would say, I have had every intention of writing, but have often found myself at odds with myself over the content that I want to communicate. It is rather difficult at times for me to put into words the concerns that I have had and to clearly lay out some of the recent thoughts I have had about various topics political, theological, ecclesiological, and otherwise. So… just as a way of whetting (or perhaps dampening) the appetite, here are a few things I’m thinking of writing on:

Are ALL Asian American Christians sellouts
(a response to the post at nextegenerasianchurch)

Further thoughts on women in ministry leadership (an exploration of history, hermeneutics, and sociopolitical considerations)

Black Asian dialogue (just wanting to know if we have anything to teach each other)

Are there any other suggestions?? Asian Christians and homosexuality? Preaching in the Asian church? Am I a sellout for going to an Asian church?

The Collapse of Evangelicalism?

Perhaps you’ve already read this article about the coming collapse of evangelicalism in the Christian Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying him.

The article combined the recent results of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College indicates what we have all long suspected: Americans are not as religious as they were previously and the most religious of them all, evangelicals, are losing dominance and influence in American life, so much so that it is being called a “collapse.”

There are many who are celebrating this collapse, both within and outside of evangelical circles. Some because they believe it will lead to a needed reformation, or because they are sick of the culture of evangelicalism. Others are glad because they believe that Christians are altogether wrong, that religion is unhelpful and the bane of civilization. Some share his concern about the dumbing down of Christianity in order to generate mass appeal.

The article makes several good points, but his second particularly is striking for someone who works with young adults. He asserts:

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

I can testify to the truth of this assertion. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Biblical illiteracy Christian students are woefully ignorant about their own faith. Combined with a thrust for activism, I foresee that evangelicalism will not so much collapse as cease to be orthodox. Of course orthodox (small o) Christian is thriving in America and around the world There is a subtle assumption in Spencer’s article that evangelical = white middle class American. It does not.

Though we may not care to remember it, and some now view evangelicals as out of touch, evangelicalism was (and is) the movement of the non-elites in American society. It thrived, in all its various forms, among those who were not especially well educated and certainly who viewed themselves as not being among the “in-crowd.” During the hey-day of mainline churches in America, evangelicals (then called fundamentalists) were definitely not the cool kids. They still aren’t. Despite their perceived political strength, they are, at best, the red-headed step child of the Republican party, which likes the evangelical vote, but is somewhat less enamored of actual evangelicals. The evangelical left, which has increasingly become associated with the Democratic Party treats run of the mill evangelicals like the crazy uncle that embarrasses you whenever you have friends over. You can’t really disown them, but if you could get away with you’d like to keep him lock in the attic. In fact I daresay that evangelicals probably get worse press than any other religious group in America, far out of proportion to their numbers or influence.